IF YOU DON'T KNOW what you're looking for, the entry to Theater Schmeater is remarkably easy to miss. That's because the theater, which has been

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Licking it into shape

Theater Schmeater's new artistic director plans big changes for a small venue.

IF YOU DON'T KNOW what you're looking for, the entry to Theater Schmeater is remarkably easy to miss. That's because the theater, which has been dedicated for seven years to "great plays, done simply," is in a converted parking garage up on Capitol Hill. Patrons descend a concrete walkway into the underground venue noted for its popular "Twilight Zone Live" late-night shows along with a mix of American classics, all performed with enthusiasm on a shoestring budget.

The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek

Theater Schmeater till December 18

The door is a little easier to see thanks to a newly painted sign, and the lobby now boasts carpeting—a minuscule change compared with other theaters' capital campaigns, but a big one for the Schmeater, according to its new artistic director Sheila Daniels. "We've always aimed to treat our audiences well, but now we're on a mission to take a garage and make it as beautiful a place as possible."

This cosmetic improvement is only the most visible of a number of changes that Daniels has planned for the theater, as is clear from a glance at the 2000 season. Since Doug Hunt and Anthony Winkler founded the Schmeater in 1992, the concentration has been on the classical Western canon, white guys from the Greeks through to Sam Shepard by way of such perennials as Kaufman & Hart and George Bernard Shaw. But now, seven years and over 40 shows later, both founders were burned out and interested in finding a replacement with some fresh energy and new ideas.

Daniels not may have been the only choice to take the helm, but it looks as if she was an inspired one. This talented actor/director has been working in Seattle since 1992, as a founding member of the Immediate Theater, a company member of AHA!, and currently on the staff of Cornish College of the Arts. Her directorial work is notable for its strong command of physical theater, particularly in her 1997 production of Sophie Treadwell's Machinal, which featured such ingenious touches as tap-dancers imitating the sound of office machines.

Her new season, one that features new plays (Bill Corbett's Motorcade and Transformations and Other Tales, adapted from the poems of Anne Sexton) and neglected works by women, such as Aphra Behn's The Rover and Scottish writer Sue Glover's Bondagers, also includes such politically savvy pieces as Brendan Behan's The Hostage, a lyrical masterpiece about the Irish troubles, and Larry Kramer's early AIDS play The Normal Heart. It's all remarkably mature, considering the company's very name is an indiscreet nose-thumbing at any artistic pretensions.

BUT DANIELS CLEARLY feels that it's time for the theater to grow up, at least in the way it treats its artists and audiences. One important goal is to pay the staff and artists associated with the company "if not a living wage, close enough to one." She also wants to challenge the theater's audiences to newer and riskier fare. "I won't be taking away anything that they love, like the Twilight Zone shows, which at their best are poetic and have a real mystery to them. They've been a great way to attract new audiences, especially young people who might otherwise never enter a theater. But even with our late-night shows, we're introducing changes, like our new serial Money and Run, which is campy and fun but all new and locally written."

Just how the audiences will react to the new fare will be tested this week with the opening of The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek by Naomi Wallace, the Northwest premiere of the controversial play about a pair of small-town teenagers who develop a deadly game with a locomotive. Wallace, a poet-turned-playwright whose reputation remains higher outside this country than in it, is known for marrying heightened language to a gritty realism. The result, according to Daniels, avoids the sort of "poeticizing" in which a bunch of actors stand around reciting great gouts of image-rich language: "The train, interestingly, continues to move the piece, so that you don't have the lofty and static sort of poetic language you might expect. I couldn't imagine doing this play with people standing still."

Though Daniels admits that working on the play has been difficult, she's very pleased with the results. "I'm happy to have this as my premiere work in the space. I love working here because its physical limitations make me work harder. Trestle feels like a script written for a space with a lot of height, so the challenge has become, 'How do we create that here?' Our solution is to use depth as a convention for height."

Changing the fundamental way the audience sees the stage for Trestle may seem unusual and a little daunting, but if Daniels is successful in her ambitions, it will be only the first in many changes that aim to bring a cozy, cheerfully cheap venue into the vanguard of Seattle's alternative theaters.

 
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